Behind every popular video game is a nostalgic soundtrack, something that the 8-Bit Big Band understands better than anyone.
The 33-person jazz-pop ensemble is conducted by founder Charlie Rosen, an alumnus of Berklee College of Music and Broadway. The band returned to Berklee Performance Center Sunday to revitalize video games in a never-before-heard way: through the charms of live jazz.
Current Berklee student and YouTuber Carlos Eiene, known by his stage name insaneintherainmusic, opened the show with an arrangement of “Oreburgh City” from the game “Pokemon Diamond and Pearl.” He stunned the crowd with his impressive use of a trumpet and a trombone solo.
Following “Veilstone City” and “Eterna City” — two more tributes to “Pokemon Diamond.” Eiene entertained viewers with a rendition of the Mii Channel theme song, a fan-favorite of Nintendo Wii players. Smooth and engaging, Eiene led the audience through dynamic and potent covers of “The Underground” and “Eterna Forest,” thoroughly hyping up listeners for the 8-Bit Big Band.
Rosen was graciously and enthusiastically welcomed onto the stage by all present. The baton was raised and on came the theme song to Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros,” taking listeners down memory lane.
From there, the band moved into “Still Alive” from the video game “Portal,” where Rosen sang in classic Frank Sinatra fashion. Known for being able to play 70 instruments, Rosen unsurprisingly has a knack for vocals as well.
Members of the ensemble skillfully showed off their talents with countless solos, including an impressive saxophone solo in a rendition of “Fourside” from Nintendo video game “EarthBound.”
Audience interaction was also an aspect of the show. At one point, the audience was asked what song they wanted to hear and they voted by cheering. Options for the arrangement included “Spring Yard Zone” from “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Overworld Theme” from “Super Mario” and “The Moon Theme” from Disney’s “DuckTales.”
The audience chose “The Moon Theme,” which is also the first track on the band’s second album, “Choose Your Character!” and fittingly featured a French horn solo.
The band also gave the audience sneak peeks of tracks on their upcoming third album, which Rosen said is about halfway finished. He told the audience he hopes to have it completed by “next mid-summer.”
A soulful cover of “Birdman” from the 1996 Nintendo flight simulator “Pilotwings 64” included a grand solo from Zac Zinger, who played the Ewi, an electronic wind-based instrument. The addition of the Ewi is a stellar tribute to the original theme song, elevating the song with an additional layer of texture.
Next came “Dire, Dire Docks” from “Super Mario 64,” during which Rosen showed off his musical prowess on the string bass.
The next track was the 8-Bit Big Band’s take on the “Tetris” theme song, entitled “Korobeiniki,” originally a Russian folk song. The orchestra proved that they could revolutionize the song and break down the simple melody into an insanely fast and complex beat. The act marks the end of the show’s well-paced buildup, leading to anticipated showings from guests Grace Kelly and Leo Pellegrino, or more famously known as Leo P.
Kelly stands out with her bright crimson hair, decked out in royal blue from head to toe. Known for being a talented saxophonist, Kelly didn’t disappoint as she slung the heavy instrument back and forth in an emotional delivery of “Hydrocity Zone” from “Sonic the Hedgehog 3” and “Big Blue” from “F-Zero X.” Kelly also gave an equally masterful, bright vocal performance of “Jump Up, Super Star” from “Super Mario Odyssey.”
Baritone saxophonist Leo P entertained spectators with unparallelled style and flair. Sporting an aqua mohawk, studded leather jacket and ripped jeans, the musician played for the first time with the 8-Bit Big Band. He performed the “Underground Theme” from “Super Mario Land” with body rolls, hip thrusts and endless enthusiasm.
With the audience at an all-time high, the soloist performed a hyper-charged “Mortal Kombat” theme, with both audience and performers chanting out the words.
Rosen ended the show with sentimental pieces — first a declarative and expressive performance of the “Final Fantasy” theme song, leading into the familiar “Pokemon” anime theme song, a piece Rosen said takes him back to the days when he would wake up and sit in front of the television. For this, Leo P and Kelly appeared for a collaborative cameo, decked out in Ash and Misty cosplay, swaying their saxophones in stirring and innovative solos.
The final song of the night was “Gerudo Valley” from “The Legend of Zelda.” Rosen told the audience that was one of his favorite pieces of all time.
As an ensemble composed of endlessly talented and passionate individuals, the 8-Bit Big Band was able to showcase a shared passion of love for music and gaming in how they combine video game music and jazz. Without taking away from the games’ sentiments, the band fluently executed live music in a class high above their own.